Cubans Talk Baseball, Not Castro, on the Street

When Fidel Castro announced he was stepping down from the Cuban presidency, anthropologist Roberto Armengol hit the streets. Armengol found people weren't abuzz about politics.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

It's been a little more than 24 hours since el jefe, Fidel Castro, announced publicly he would step down as president, officially giving up the leadership of Cuba that he transferred to his brother Raul a year and a half ago.

Now in a nation that has been cut off from some global markets and fell on hard economic times after the fall of it's sugar daddy, the Soviet Union, the people in the streets must have opinions about this, right? (Unintelligible)

On the phone from Havana is Roberto Armengol, a grad student from the University of Virginia doing research for a PhD in anthropology. He's been in Cuba for almost a year and he's been going there on and off since 2003.

Hi, Roberto.

Mr. ROBERTO ARMENGOL (Grad Student, University of Virginia): Hi, Alison. How are you?

STEWART: I'm great. So I want to point out though, even you're going for your PhD in anthropology, at one point in your life you were a reporter-journalist. So I guess not being able to keep your inner reporter contained, you spent yesterday walking around the city just listening to what people were talking about. Was Fidel topic number one?

Mr. ARMENGOL: It's hard to say, Alison. I did tool around yesterday on my bicycle, actually. It's a great way to get around town. And I went to talk to mostly people I knew personally who I figured would be more talkative with me. Most of the time I had to bring up the subject myself. Obviously it was a big deal in a symbolic way, but people were expecting this. I was actually expecting it on Sunday, when the parliament was scheduled to meet to elect its new leaders, and it came a little earlier.

So it was a topic of discussion but not as much as you might think.

STEWART: You mentioned you were tooling around on your bicycle and you went to this park which is kind of a social center. Tell us about your interaction with the people there.

Mr. ARMENGOL: One of the first things I did yesterday morning was go to Parque Central. It's a park right on the edge of the old city. It's got shade trees and lots of benches and people gathering just to hang out there during the day. And every day there's a group of men who hang out and argue about baseball mostly. Sometimes they talk about world events in the off season. I've heard them debate the war in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon. But there's a kind of unspoken rule as far as I can tell that you don't talk about domestic politics. And I thought that the news being what it was yesterday, maybe that rule would get broken.

So I went to listen in on the performance and sort of get a - see if that was coming up in a conversation. And when I got there, there was still a small group of people gathering and they were starting to talk and they all had - not all of them but a lot of them had the issue - the daily issue of Granma, the communist newspaper, tucked into their arms. So I thought, hey, this might be good. And what were they talking about? Baseball.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARMENGOL: And they, you know, got into the same sort of heated discussions. It's very much a performance, flailing their arms, kind of a display of Cuban masculinity, arguing, yelling at each other. And I decided to hang out because - thinking maybe things would get more interesting. And finally one little guy in the middle of the crowd brings up the resignation. And all of a sudden a much larger man in the group starts to talk him down. And this larger with a deep and booming voice saying over and over again to this little guy, hey, we're talking about sports here. We don't talk about politics. We're talking about sports. The little guy just had to sort of go away and people laughed as he left. And in a lot of ways I think that's symbolic of how people reacted to the news.

I'm not trying to say that the larger man was afraid to talk about politics. A lot of people think that, I think, outside of Cuba, think that people don't talk about those things in the street. They do. It's just that that wasn't the point of their meeting there. Their meeting there is a way to have fun, and if you bring up these more serious issues, then all of a sudden what you're doing isn't fun anymore and it becomes serious. And not so much politically precarious, but sort of depressing, and daily life can be depressing enough as it is here.

STEWART: Were you able to watch any of the newscasts with the locals?

Mr. ARMENGOL: Well, actually, it's kind of interesting. There's two news shows every night. One of them is called The Roundtable and it's a political show. But they didn't change the show. They just read out the resignation message at the beginning, which is typical. They usually read out Fidel's reflections on the air and then they move on to the subject of the day. And yesterday they didn't change the subject of the day at all. It was a show about the 50th anniversary of Radio Liberde, which is the revolution's radio station from back in the days in the fighting in the mountains against Batista. And I thought that was kind of curious.

It didn't come up again, the resignation, until the standard 8:00 o'clock news. And there was a man on the piece - man on the street piece. And so of course everyone on TV said they were sad to see Fidel step down, and two of them insisted that he should, despite his resignation as president, continue to carry the title of commander in chief, which is how most people refer to him anyway.

Now, a friend who was with me explained that the title is really symbolic here because it's rooted in the mountain battles Fidel led again Batista's army in the 1950s. So even thought the title of commander in chief has no basis in the Cuban constitution or any other law as far as I can tell, and maybe even because it doesn't, it seems to be much more meaningful to Cubans than the title of president. And I think that that commentary on the news and what my friend was telling kind of suggests that until Fidel is physically disappeared, the euphemism is here, things aren't going to change that much. And I think that's one of the reasons that there hasn't been a big reaction here as there has been probably in the Cuban community in the United States.

STEWART: Roberto Armengol is a grad student from the University of Virginia doing research for a PhD in Anthropology. He joins us on the phone from Havana, Cuba. Hey, Roberto, thanks a lot.

Mr. ARMENGOL: Hey, it was my pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Hey, stay with us. Next on the BPP, Tim Hetherington, a freelance photographer. One of his pictures has won the 2007 World Press Photo of the Year. It's a shot that he took while being embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan. I spoke with him about that photo and that experience. Also, Kosovo, they voted for independence on Sunday. How is that going down? Serbians are not so pleased with that decision we're going to delve deeper into that story. Also a round up of last nights voting.

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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